When a student starts work at Innovative Automation, he undergoes a tiered approach to learning. He is given a step-by-step agenda that outlines his tasks and how to do them safely, and he is required to systematically work through it.
“We kind of micromanage at the start and as they develop their skills, we back off on the supervision and let them do their jobs,” says Steve Loftus, president of the Barrie, Ont.-based company that provides factory automation solutions for Fortune 500 companies.
After three months on the job, the young workers — under age 25 — are given a quiz to make sure they have retained everything and to identify any gaps.
“I started on some pretty big machines. I don’t think I was ever uncomfortable,” says Trefor Armstrong, 22, a mechanical engineering co-op student from the University of Guelph. “(The machines) may have been intimidating, but the process I went though to be trained on them, I felt fine the whole time.”
Innovative Automation, which has 83 employees in total, takes on students from local colleges and universities for co-op programs throughout the year (between four and nine each semester) and it also hires summer students (around six each summer).
Successful students are hired back for future work terms and many are ultimately hired as full-time employees.
The student work terms overlap so a young worker coming in has the opportunity to learn from a peer who reinforces the safety training.
“The first day on the job can be very intimidating. I came here out of my first year (of university) and I didn’t know what I got myself into, but having that other student there was a big benefit,” says Kevin King, 24, a mechanical engineering co-op student at the University of Guelph.
A major component of keeping young workers safe at Innovative comes back to the corporate culture. It has a very “relaxed, family-style” culture, says Loftus, with lots of activities to bring people together, including Friday morning hockey, Tuesday night skiing and numerous barbecues in the summer. These activities help the young workers get to know their colleagues and feel comfortable in the workplace.
“There’s nothing more intimidating than being 20 years old and some guy sits in the office at the end of the hall and the door’s closed all the time,” says Loftus. “That culture — as much as it was very commonplace in the ‘70s, ‘80s, into the ‘90s — was not conducive to people being comfortable having discussions about what might be perceived as a cost to the company.”
Young workers at Innovative know their feedback is valued and they feel comfortable asking questions and reporting any safety issues that may arise.
“It becomes a family. All of them will just drop what they’re doing if I have any questions for them,” says Armstrong. “Everyone is such good friends, they have no problem doing that.”